Bayou classic

Angels in Atlanta

On American Thanksgiving day in Atlanta, I woke thinking of  the man who, upon hearing me say I was from Canada,  said, "Je m'appelle Antoine," at least I think he said Antoine. The white brillo beard on his clear, deep brown face, the toque, the white tennis shoes. This occurred the afternoon of Thanksgiving eve, me heading down to Peachtree from the Greyhound Station, thinking I knew where I was going. Seeing me looking around, he asked if I was okay, and tolerated me when I insisted that 134 Peachtree Street must be close by because weren't we at 175? Him walking  alongside me, restraining himself when I insisted. Then, "Believe me m'am, I've lived here 9 years, and it is southwest Peachtree you're looking for. You gotta go back to the train."  But I read it on the website, I explained. "Believe me m'am, this is a bad neighbourhood. I'll walk you as far as the train.You got to go back to the train." When I saw no sign of the hotel I was booked into for my overnight stay, or any hotel, I gave in. "It is so nice of you to help me."

"I am a Christian man. You're talking to someone who has looked on Jerusalem." But he was also a vet and the United States doesn't treat its vets very well, he said, in a voice that carried no French accent at all. It was clear he needed money. I said the problem is I don't have any change, and that was true, but I could get change in the station, the MARTA station, where I would have to wait for the northbound train and get off at the second stop, according to Antoine, if it was Antoine he called himself. He showed me how to work the machine, his finger trembling a little as we chose the right lines to press on the screen. I thought I would give him five dollars, but really, I should have given him everything I had, because even though I doubted him, frankly profiled him - a street person, black, wanting money -  and had turned away to open my wallet, and continued to wonder if his advice was correct, even as he stood outside the station and blew me a kiss, it turned out that he was absolutely right. I walked down the nearly deserted southwest Peachtree Street to my destination and  I wished all night that I'd given more. Jesus loves a cheerful giver, said Preacher Little, in Savannah.
Then, mercy: a late train, which gave me time for a long conversation with the wise Elizabeth Daily, an Amtrak baggage clerk, whose reading and thinking over many years has taught her that we act as we do because it is hard for us to move away from archetypes.  A woman alone on a virtually empty street is prey. Even a black woman would think that way, she said, if she encountered a gangsta type dresser, in baggy pants and a hoody. Not that Antoine had been so dressed. The media imprints images that affect our subconscious, said Elizabeth, and not only that, but more. When I asked her about racism in Atlanta she said it was not so much race that divided people, but money. The economic gap has widened and for people on the wrong side, the gap has been getting harder and harder to breach. Poor neighborhoods had poor schools; a poor education limited possibilities.

Elizabeth became for me the grace before the juicy Thanksgiving feast that consisted of my Amtrak Crescent trip to New Orleans. The long roll through Alabama and Mississippi, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Hattiesburg, the pretty undulating hills and slim treed forests and a sunset that lasted miles and miles: first, bruised clouds, then the big sky coloured as if rubbed with a blood orange, while Bob and Muriel Lawrence and Pearson Cotton, and
Marva and the others enjoyed their Mimosas and their champagne glasses filled with some creamy desert, or perhaps an appetizer, and Pearson related to me the history of the region, the Creeks and Choctaws, Cherokee and Seminole Andrew Jackson had ordered  banished, but not before  they interbred with African slaves, their offspring being the ancestors of this party enjoying themselves on the long ride to New Orleans for the Bayou classic.

Happy Thanksgiving, called a stunning woman to her seatmate as he debarked from the train in Meridian. "Eat a lot of turkey and macaroni and cheese, collards and black eyed peas and sweet potatoes and sweet potato pie and red velvet cake!"

The final blessing of that day, Ruth, a white haired security guard who saw me lost again, roaming the near-deserted streets of New Orleans this time, and waved me into her big official building so I didn't have to wander in the cold. On her desk she had a covered plate of Thanksgiving dinner someone had brought her, and left it there to walk me around the corner to where I was supposed to be. Supposed to be? That's something that is not always clear.